"Excuse me, Mistress, but the Master is asking for your."
The young woman looked up from her pile of papers and said with a sigh, "Thank you Johnson." She dismissed him with a tired smile. After the butler left the room, nineteen-year old Isabella Timmons laid her head down in her hands. She couldn't help but reflect on how much her life had changed over the past year and a half. A year and a half ago her father had become ill. A year and a half ago she gave up her basically carefree life, came home from school, and took over the responsibility of her father's estate.
Her reflections were interrupted by a few loud knocks on the study's door. Miss Timmons let out an unladylike groan. "Come in!" she called.
A fashionably dressed young man two years her junior walked confidently into the room. "Well, well," she said as she leaned back in her chair. "Thomas. Why am I not surprised?"
He chuckled nervously. "Well, it's the first of the month and we both know what that means. My allowance, if you lease," he said with his hand outstretched.
"Thomas," she reprimanded him with a shake of her head, "aren't you ever actually going to enquire about Papa or his health? What about the estate? When Papa passes away, a date that looks as if it's coming closer and closer, you'll inherit the estate and you will actually have to manage it. How do you think you will be able to do that if you're never here?"
Thomas simply rolled his eyes. "Bella, personally I think that you're doing a fine job of managing the estate yourself."
"Yes, but what will happen when I marry someday? I won't stay home forever you know."
Her brother simply laughed in response and exclaimed, "You! Get married! I doubt I shall live to see that day!" He took his allowance, gave Bella a backhand wave, and continued laughing as he walked out of the room and down the hallway.
As soon as he left the room, it was entered by Johnson once again. Before he could say a word, Bella raised her hand to stop him. "I know, I know. I'm on my way to see him now." She took a deep breath and walked down the hallway, up the stairs, and paused in front of her father's room.
As her eyes adjusted to the lack of light in the room, the first sight that greeted her was of an emaciated older amn, tucked into the massive four-poster bed. "Papa?" she asked softly, "You wished to see me?"
"Come," he said softly and held out his hand. when she came forward and took his hand, he began to speak. "My dear," he coughed, "I think you know why I asked to speak with you." He paused, coughed some more, and tried to speak again. "Isabella, look at me. Look at me." He waited until she looked at him; there were tears in her eyes. "Belle, I'm dying. No, don't try to deny it. It's the reality." He paused once again to try and catch his breath. "The reason I asked to speak to you alone is this: We both know that your brother isn't the most responsible person to leave in charge of the estate..."
"Papa," Bella interrupted,"I've already told Thomas that I'm not going to stay at home forever and just take care of the estate for him so he can spend all of the money and live his ideal life!"
Her father chuckled, which turned into a cough. When he recovered his breath, he gave her a tired smile and said, "That's my Isabella; so passionate and always jumping to conclusions. But, my dear, that is not what I was saying. Bella," he looked her straight in the eye, "I am going to leave the estate to you."
Isabella simply looked at him in shock. She broke the silence a few moments later. "What?" she asked incredulously.
Mr. Timmons sighed. "Belle, we both know that Thomas is just not the right person to inherit the estate. Don't worry, I won't leave him with nothing. He will have a more than generout allowance and the house in town."
Bella continued to stare at him credulously. "But...but..." she stuttered as she slid into the chair besider her father's bed. "You can't do that. I mean legally, you can't do that. Can you?"
He smiled. "My dear I can do anything I wish with the estate, it is still mine after all, even though you have been running it for the past year and a half."
She shook her head and sat in silence, still stunned by the news. Suddenly a thought hit her. "But Papa! We both know that Beatrice will never let this happen. She and Thomas will fight this!"
"How? It is already in my will. Belle, if you feel up to the challenge, Whitefalls is yours. There's no one that the tenant, wokers, merchants, or I trust more. It's up to you." They sat there, staring at each other; she was apprehensive and he was reassuring.
Finally, with a sigh, she agreed. "Papa you know that I could never refuse you," she said with a smile. "And I think that you're right about Thomas being unable to handle the estate and that the responsibilities that it entails."
After hearing these words, he sighed in relief, closed his eyes, and told her, "Thank you, my dear. Now, I think it's time you let an old man get his rest." All Belle could do was smile, kiss her father lovingly on the forehead, and leave silently. Her interview with her father had caught her completely by surprise, and she was still in shock as she shut the door to the study and leaned against it for support. After a few moments of just letting herself be overwhelmed, she said to herself, "I need to take a walk...and think."
Six days later, Mr. Henry Timmons passed away quietly in his beloved home Whitefalls. For the last six days of his life, both he and Isabella kept the secret of his will. However, Bella knew that his death would reveal all. Sure enough, not two days after her father's death, her step-mother insisted that the will be read. Bella heard this from her servant Mary, who had been her good friend for many years. Bella looked at her in shock, "What?! But the funeral hasn't even occurred yet!" However, after a moment of thinking she said, "Well, I really shouldn't be surprised. She wants to know how much she's going to get."
"Not that that really matters. After all, Master Thomas will have the estate, so it's not like she's really losing anything miss," Mary replied as she finished putting up her mistress' hair. She left when she was done, and Bella just heaved a sigh and stared at her reflection through the mirror.
"Well," she said, "I hope I'm strong enough to handle this papa and I hope you have a good enough lawyer," she gave herself a wry smile and headed downstairs to face her unaffectionate family.
At about noon that day, she was called away from the library where she had been hiding and into her father's study for the reading of his will. Her step-mother and half-brother were already gathered, as well as her father's lawyer, his faithful valet, and Johnson (the butler). "Sorry I'm late," she said with a curtsy and a slight smile.
"It's no problem at all, my dear," said the kindly old lawyer Mr. Harrison, "and please allow me to offer you my condolences." She gave him another small smile and a quiet "thank you".
Right after this, a tall, handsome gentlemen walked into the room. "Sorry I'm late Harrison. Thomas," he said with a nod to Bella's half-brother.
"Braxton!" Thomas exclaimed as he jumped forward to shake his hand, "It's fantastic to see you again old chap!" Bella smiled at the look of irritation that crossed Braxton's face as her brother tried to shake his hand.
Mr. Harrison cleared his throat, "Well...yes...erm..I suppose we should just get down to business shouldn't we?" At everyone's slight nod he began to read the will aloud. Everything seemed to be going as was expected, though Bella still had no idea why Braxton was there. What did he have to do with her father's will? But, since no one else seemed curious about this, she just let it go.
She held her breath as Mr. Harrison get to the end of the will and the part that concerned the estate. "And I leave my estate, Whitefalls..." Bella saw her step-mother and half-brother smile with anticipation,"...to my beloved daughter Isabella Timmons." As soon as Mr. Harrison said this, the room erupted.
"You conniving, greedy little witch," Beatrice screamed in her face. "You planned this the whole time! You never liked me or your brother! Ungrateful wretch!" Thomas just stood and looked both confused and angry at the same time, as if he had no idea what just happened but he knew that he should be angry about it. After her step-mother's rant, she was the subject of yet another loud voice.
"Impossible!" Braxton bellowed.
Bella couldn't take it anymore. She whirled around to face him. "And just why, sir, is it impossible!" she exclaimed. "What would you know about it! This is a family affair that doesn't concern you!"
"I beg your pardon Miss Timmons!" he argued back without lowering his voice. "It has a lot to do with me as my estate does a lot of business with Whitefalls." He turned back to Mr. Harrison. "There must be some mistake! She is completely incapable of handling an estate; they don't teach that at finishing school! There must be some mistake!"
As he said this, Bella's face went white with anger, and anyone who knew her would have immediately shut their mouth and prayed for help for she had quite the temper. She stepped in front of Lord Braxton (she finally realized just who he was with his reference to his estate) and said, as she drew herself up to her full height of 5' 6''. "With all due respect sir, which isn't saying much, I beg to differ! And what do you know about it anyway! You don't know me!" She took a deep breath because she was just getting started! "For your information, my lord," she said his title with contempt, "I have been managing this estate for the past year and a half! And, I'm pretty certain that, if anything, your profits and products due to our hard work have increased in that amount of time! and your overall business has improved due to that hard work!"
He just looked at her with wide eyes as she concluded her speech with, "And now, seeing as how your business here is done, Johnson will show you out." She directed Johnson with her hand, but Lord Braxton stalked from the room before he had a chance to perform his duty. "Now, if you all will excuse me, I have some business to attend to," and with this said she also stalked from the room. When she reached the library, she shut the door, walked over to her father's favorite section, sank to the floor, and sobbed as she allowed her emotions from the past few days to finally overwhelm her.
As much as she would've liked to sit there all day, Bella knew that there were still a lot of things that she needed to attend to. So, after allowing herself a good cry for a few minutes, she picked herself up, dried her eyes, fixed her hair, and went back to her father's study. It came as no surprise to her that her step-mother and half-brother were still in there, arguing with Mr. Harrison.
"Mr. Harrison! Mr. Harrison!" Beatrice was screeching, "There must be some mistake! I demand an explanation!" She looked so fierce, and poor, old Mr. Harrison looked so frightened that Bella couldn't help but feel sorry for the poor man.
"Beatrice, it was all my father's decision. He told me a few days ago," Bella told her, trying to lessen the hostility directed towards the poor lawyer. It worked. Her step-mother whirled around to face her.
"You!" She screeched. "You don't speak to me! I know that this was all your idea!"
"Why?!" Bella shouted back, "Why on Earth would I want to have complete responsibility for this estate?!"
"You...you...you..." she stammered, then her eyes lit up as she seemed to figure it out, "You just wanted Thomas and I to suffer! You've never forgiven us for being the ones that your father truly loved! You're just a selfish vindictive little witch!"
Bella just threw her hands up with an exasperated sigh. "Fine! Think what you like! But would you mind moving your scream-session outside of teh study; some of us actually have important business to attend to." Her step-mother just shot daggers at her with her eyes, grabbed her son's arm, and stalked from the room. Bella sank into her father's desk-chair with a sigh, and took out some financial papers that she had to look over.
Later that day, it came as no surprise to her once again that her step-mother and half-brother had packed their things, taken her father's finest carriage, and left for London, all without informing her. From then on, the estate seemed to almost get back to normal. A few days after her estranged family left Whitefalls, Bella received a visit from Lord Braxton. When he arrived he was led to the study where Bella was working, which was apparent by the slight frown and wrinkling of her forehead as she was deep in thought.
"She looks like such a child," his lordship thought to himself angrily, "how could Mr. Timmons have entrusted her with Whitefalls?" After a few moments of watching her work, he cleared his throat to announce his presence.
"Lord Braxton? How may I help you?" she asked sarcastically after looking up in surprise. For a moment he was mesmerized by the defiant sparkle in her green eyes, but he soon shook himself back to reality.
"I have come to see that the business being conducted by our stewards is on schedule," he stated brusquely.
She raised her eyebrow, "You allow you steward to conduct all of your estate business for you? And you assumed that I was the unable to understand how to manage an estate?" she questioned sarcastically.
His eyes narrowed with anger, "I would appreciate it if you would show a bit more respect to your elders and superiors, Miss Timmons."
At this comment, Isabella burst out laughing. "And you're considered both my elder and my superior?" she managed to squeeze through her laughter. His apparent anger at her mocking only made Bella laugh even harder.
Finally, as she seemed to get her laughter under control, he said curtly and with obvious frustration, "Would you please lead me to your steward so that I can discuss this with him."
She gave him a funny look and said, "I'm afraid that would be impossible, my lord. I have given my steward a few weeks off due to his faithful hard work this past year and a half during my father's illness. Besides," she stated clearly, looking him straight in the eye, "he would know as little about this affair as you apparently do because I'm the one that has been overseeing this deal with your steward for the past few months."
"But..." he sputtered, "that's impossible! My steward knows better than to leave something of this importance to your care!"
Bella merely raised her elegant eyebrow at this blatant insult. "I shall not give him the satisfaction of calling me an irrational female," she thought to herself, "I will not lose my temper again."
"Sir," she said clearly as she folded her hand together on her father's desk, "if you truly wish to learn the specifics of this affair then I have no problem discussing them with you. However, if you merely wish to insult me some more then I think you should leave the dealings between our two estates up to your steward and myself."
"Don't worry madam," he stated just as clearly, "I don't believe our two estates will have too many dealings together in the future." He made a quick bow and started to walk out of the room when Bella's words stopped him.
"Very well, but we both know that it would be your loss. I would just like to remind you before you leave that we still have some standing contracts, and if you go back on your word I will not hesitate to bring a suit against you."
He turned around and glared at her coldly, however, she was unperturbed. "I will not have my tenants and investors lose money because of your personal dislike for me," she said firmly as she returned his glare.
"Your tenants have no reason to worry miss, I am a man of my word," he said coldly, gave her another quick bow, and left before Bella had a chance to stand and curtsy or say a word. She, however, instead of being insulted (which was what he had intended), just chuckled at his pride and rudeness, and got back to work without giving the estimed Lord Braxton another thought.
Unfortunately for his lordship, the same cannot be said about him. Throughout that day, and night, the image of Miss Timmons' beautiful eyes and smile and the sound of her tinkling laughter as she mocked him kept interrupting his thoughts.
Just as things seemed to be getting back to normal at Whitefalls, and just as Bella was beginning to get used to the idea of being mistress of the estate, Mr. Harrison came regarding another legal matter.
"Miss Timmons," he said once he was led into her office and seated, "I have some...concerning, I think would be the correct word to use...I have some concerning news." He paused, waiting for her response.
Bella just looked at him, and finally said impatiently, "Well...what is it? What news are you speaking of sir?"
"Ahem, well...you see," he stammered, "there are certain people who do not think that you are entitled or capable enough to inherit the estate and they have filed a formal--legal--complaint."
Bella just laughed, and Mr. Harrison looked at her in surprise. "Miss, excuse me if what I say is too forward, but are you all right? This wasn't the reaction that I was expecting."
"Mr. Harrison," she laughed, "I completely understand. You were expecting me to panic and fall into hysterics, as any "delicate female" would." At his guilty expression, she laughed again. "Sir, I regret to inform you that I'm not a "delicate female". My father brought me up with my brother. In fact, I can ride, fence, read, and do arithmetic better than my brother. I'm not afraid of a little lawsuit issued by my jealous step-mother, weak half-brother, and chauvinistic neighbor."
"Yes, well...I fear that the situation may be more serious than you think," Mr. Harrison told her worriedly. "An English court might uphold your brother's claim based simply on the fact that, traditionally, he should have been you father's heir because..."
"Because he is the only son," Bella interjected.
"Yes," he gave her an apologetic look, "I'm sorry, miss."
Once again, Bella laughed. "Mr. Harrison, you sound as if the verdict is already decided. Well, don't give up all hope yet, sir. I predicted (as did my father) that this would happen when he first told me that he had changed his will. Don't worry," she reassured him with a twinkle in her eye, "I have a plan."
Meanwhile, at Lord Braxton's manor, the very same news was being discussed. His lordship's valet had just led a visitor into his office.
"Braxton! Good to see you again old chap!"
Braxton suppressed a groan. "Thomas...what can I do for you?"
"I just needed to get away from my mother," he said with a sigh as he threw himself, without invitation, into one of his lordship's armchairs.
"Really?" Braxton asked disinterestedly. "What has she been doing this time?"
"Well, you were there when my father's will was read. I declare, she hasn't stopped screaming about it since. And now she's gone and got the law involved..." Thomas complained.
"Wait! What do you mean? Is she going to try and strip you sister of her inheritance?" Braxton leaned forward in his chair and waited intently for Thomas to answer.
"Of course," he eyed Braxton curiously, "Surely you didn't think that she would just let Bella get away with this?"
"What do you mean 'get away with it'? She hasn't done anything wrong. Your father was the one that left her the inheritance!" he told Thomas heatedly.
"Of course it was her fault! She's always been like this! Personally, I couldn't care less about the estate and she knows this. She used that information so that she could pretend to care and then gain my father's trust. You'll see. She won't be able to manage it for long."
"How do you know? It's not like you ever took any interest in running the estate? And your father knew this!" Braxton exclaimed. Thomas simply looked shocked that he was speaking to him this way. "You don't deserve that estate! You couldn't handle it either! Even your father thought so!"
"How dare you! You don't know what you're talking about! That estate should have been mine!" Thomas jumped from his chair and shouted at Lord Braxton.
Braxton laughed. "Even if the estate hadn't been left to your sister, you father still wouldn't have left it to you!"
"What do you mean?" asked a perplexed Thomas.
"I mean," Braxton said slowly and clearly, "that you father had been looking for another heir for the past two years; even before his illness. Didn't you ever why I was there when the will was read? Your father was supposed to leave the estate to me."
"What?!" Thomas exclaimed. "That's impossible! He would never let it go outside the family!"
"Well he was certainly thinking about it. Although," Braxton said with an ironic smile, "it would appear that, for once, you are right. He did not let it go outside the family after all." At this point, Thomas wasn't really paying attention to him anymore and was pacing around the room.
"Who else knows about this?" he asked anxiously when he paused his pacing in front of his lordship.
"Well, I certainly wasn't the first person that he talked to," he told Thomas amusedly.
"Braxton," Thomas was now looking at him very seriously, "I'm going to need your help with this lawsuit. You don't know my half-sister. She's so...so..."
"Stubborn?" Braxton interjected.
"No...well, yes. But that's not the word that I was looking for. She's so smart. Too smart! Definitely abnormal for a female!"
Braxton snorted. "I doubt she's smart enough to fool a judge or a lawyer."
"No, you don't understand," Thomas told him anxiously. "She was even smarter than my father. He used to lament that she hadn't been born a boy because her intelligence could have led to her having a great political career. He got her the best tutors that money could buy; tutors that normally taught only men!"
Throughout this speech, Braxton merely looked on with awe. "Surely that couldn't possibly prepare her to trick a court. There's no way that any judge would rule in her favor. Honestly, Thomas, I don't think that you have a thing to worry about."
"Yes, well, I would appreciate your help all the same," he told Braxton.
"Very well," his lordship said with a sigh. "Though I don't know how much help I will be considering I'm not a barrister or anything."
"Oh stop being modest old man. We both know that you set many academic records at Cambridge that still stand in my years even though you graduated years ago." Thomas said jovially, slapping Braxton on the back.
"I'm not that old," he grumbled in response, then said, "Well, if all you came here for was my help, then you've got it. I've been planning a trip to town anyway."
"Great!" exclaimed Thomas. "So, we will be expecting you in a few weeks then?"
"Yes, yes," Braxton said impatiently as he led the young man out of his study and called for his horse to be readied. After rushing Thomas' departure, Braxton wen back to his study, deep in thought. He wondered if he was doing the right thing. After all, he had talked to his steward and apparently Miss Timmons was doing an admirable job of running the estate, and he knew that Thomas would definitely not do as well. He wondered what Miss Timmons would do once the estate was taken from her. For a moment he felt a twinge of guilt, but only for a short moment. He quickly shook himself from his sympathies and determined that he would sit down and concentrate on his own business instead of interfering with the Timmons' affairs.
However, no matter how hard he tried to stop them, his thoughts kept drifting to the remarkable young woman running the neighboring estate, and he once again wondered if he was doing the right thing; if he was on the right side. Finally, he slammed his hands on his desk and said firmly to himself, "I've made my decision, and only time will tell if it is the correct one."
After Bella had told Mr. Harrison her plan, the two proceeded to make some adjustments and make sure that they had all of their bases covered so they wouldn't be tricked by her step-mother's lawyers. "Well, Miss Timmons," Harrison spoke on his way out, "I must say, it appears you have thought of everything."
She flashed her brilliant smile. "Well, I do try. But of course, I couldn't have come up with this plan without you, or my father's, help. I really am indebted to you Mr. Harrison," she said seriously, "there aren't many men that would work hard to defend a client such as myself in these circumstances."
"My dear," he patted her hand paternally, "I could do nothing else. Your father and I were great friends, and I have known you all your life. I know that I have never seen a man more proud of his daughter than your father was of you."
Bella gave him a soft smile. "Thank you, Mr. Harrison."
"And now," he said as he mounted his horse, "nothing remains but for us to prove society wrong and win this case." Bella laughed. "Good day my dear, and I shall see you in London in a few weeks time."
"Good day Mr. Harrison," she bid him adieu with a smile and a wave, and he was gone. With a sigh, she walked back to her study and, once again, buried herself in her work. Since she had become mistress, she had basically been working twenty-four hours and harder than ever. This did not go unnoticed by the staff, who had always adored their deceased master and his wonderful daughter, nor did it go unnoticed by her tenants, who actually all supported Bella's claim over Thomas'.
Finally, Mrs. Dennison, the housekeeper who had always been like a mother to Bella, decided it was time to interfere. "Miss Izzy," she announced when she brought Bella her dinner tray in the study that evening, "This will not do! You will not be helping anyone if you work yourself to death!" she scolded.
Bella sighed, "I know but..."
"No," she interrupted. "No excuses! Your father wouldn't want this. I"m sure this business can wait for the evening. When you're done eating your dinner, why don't you go into the music room and practice the pianoforte. You haven't played in a long while, and we've all missed the music." She didn't even wait for Bella to respond before she left the tray and walked briskly from the room.
Bella closed her eyes and rested her head in her hands. After heaving a huge sigh, she lifted her head and brought the tray over to her desk. "She's right," she thought to herself, "I need to take a break before I lose my mind." With this thought came a wry smile as she settled herself in to eat her dinner and to go over a few more papers before she would take her excellent housekeeper's orders.
Bella wasn't the only one working hard at such a late hour. Her "chauvinistic neighbor", as she liked to call him, was also isolated in his study with his steward. They were going over some business papers that had accidentally been neglected for a while. "Ah-ha!" Mr. Davis, Lord Braxton's steward exclaimed as he held up a few pieces of paper. "These are exactly the papers I was looking for today!"
"What are they?" Braxton asked curiously.
"These are the papers that I had meant to give to Miss Timmons..." he broke off nervously; Miss Timmons had become a taboo subject between Lord Braxton and himself. "Ahem," he cleared his throat, "I should really bring these over to her as soon as possible. That way we won't be behind schedule tomorrow. If you'll excuse me mi'lord," he got up as he said this and was preparing to leave the room when Braxton interrupted him.
"Wait!" he stopped his steward. "I know that you've been eager to get home to your wife and sick child. Why don't I just ride these papers quickly over to Whitefalls so you can go right home? I wanted to go for a ride anyway."
Mr. Davis raised his eyebrow curiously, but knew to keep his mouth shut and his questions to himself. "Well, if you're sure mi'lord..."
"Of course," he said quickly, "I already said that I had been planning on going for a ride anyway. Give my greetings to your wife and son."
"Of course mi'lord. Have a good evening," and with one last curious parting look at his master, Mr. Davis left.
Almost immediately after Mr. Davis' departure, Braxton called for his horse to be readied. "Why am I doing this?" he asked himself repeatedly. "I just wanted to help Davis, that's all. That's right, I only wanted to help Davis," he repeated to himself in response to his question. He packed the papers, mounted his horse, and left for Whitefalls.
When he arrived, he told the butler that he knew his way to the study and did not require assistance. When he arrived at the study, he took a deep breath before knocking. He was surprised to receive no response. "Excuse me, miss," he stopped a passing maid, "do you know where your mistress is?"
She curtsied. "I believe she is in the music room. The third door on the left down that hall," she pointed it out to him.
"Thank you," he said and began walking in the direction that she had pointed out. When he got closer, he distinctly heard the sound of a pianoforte and a beautiful voice. He stood, mesmerized by the sound, outside the music room's door. However, he soon shook himself out of his trance and entered the room. What he saw amazed him.
"She's beautiful!" he thought to himself. As he stood and stared at her, she happened to look up.
"Oh!" she gasped in surprise and stopped playing. "Lord Braxton? What are you doing here?"
"I...I...I..." he stammered as she looked at him expectantly. 'Say something man!' he told himself. But it was no use. He couldn't stop staring into her beautiful bright green eyes that were curiously watching him. Finally, utterly frustrated with himself, he brusquely said, "I brought you these," he held out the papers, "my steward found them but he had to return home so I brought them to you."
"Oh, thank you," she said, the surprise still evident in her voice. She got up from the pianoforte and took the papers from his outstretched hand. He continued to stand there and stare at her. "Well," she said, breaking the awkward silence, "was there something else that you needed?"
"Um...no...I don't think so," he stumbled over his words again. He once again searched for something to say to her; unfortunately for him, the topic he decided on was definitely not going to put him in her favor. "Your brother came to see me a few days ago."
"Really," she said sarcastically, "what a surprise! Do you really think I don't know what you're trying to do?" she said coldly.
"What? I'm not trying to do anything! I don't understand you," Braxton said in complete surprise.
"Oh please! Look, I'm sure my half-brother informed you that I'm not just some ignorant female, so I would appreciate it if you would just be frank with me!" Braxton merely looked at her, having no idea what to say. "Fine!" she exclaimed. "Don't be frank! But I'm telling you right now, it's not going to work. No one's going to take my father's estate from me, especially not you!"
"What?!" he shouted in shock. "I don't know what you're talking about! I"m not trying to take your inheritance from you!"
"Ha!" she shouted sarcastically, "Of course! I'm sure that my half-brother just visited you as a mere social call!"
"No, but...it's not what you think...I didn't..." he was once again unable to decide what he wanted to say to her.
"You know what?" she interrupted him. "I don't care! I don't care what you think of me or how hard you try to convince a judge that I don't deserve this inheritance. The fact is, I know that I'm doing an excellent job and I know that I'm the best hope that this estate has! And just because you believe otherwise does not give you the right to come over here, to my home, and try to prove that you're right!" She took a deep breath to calm herself, then said in a cold, steady, and indifferent voice, "Thank you for the papers; if you'll excuse me, I better take care of then in my study," she curtsied. "You can see yourself out, my lord. Good evening!" And with this, she walked briskly from the room, leaving an astonished Lord Braxton with his mouth open in shock.
When she'd left, he replayed the conversation in his mind and groaned loudly. "Oh why did ever come over here?!" he berated himself. As he entered the hallway, he glanced once more toward Bella's study, then walked in the opposite direction to the courtyard, where he horse was already awaiting him. With a dejected sigh, he turned his horse and headed back to his own estate.
Bella and Braxton avoided each other for the next few weeks, and Braxton left it up to his steward to take care of any business that his estate had with Whitefalls. At Whitefalls, Bella continued to take care of the estate and she tried not to worry about anything else. About a week before she was to leave for London, Bella had a very unexpected visitor.
"Well, well, well. Look who's hard at work. I never thought I'd see the day!" said the young man who had just shown himself into her study.
"Matthew!" Bella squeeled as she jumped up from her desk, ran to her best friend, and threw her arms around his neck. He laughed at her exuberance and spun her around. "What are you doing here?" she questioned when he finally put her down.
"Well, I left as soon as I heard of your father's passing. I still cannot believe he's truly gone," he said softly. "Anyway," he told her brightly, "there I was, in Florence, minding my own business when I received a letter from my old gossiping mother hen. And can you guess who she tells me is the talk of the ton?" He looked at her expectantly.
She gave him her most innocent look and said, "I can't imagine who you're talking about."
He laughed. "Okay, I'm sure you can't. Well, I'll tell you anyway. Apparently, a very young woman has inherited her father's entire estate instead of her brother. Can you believe it!" he excalimed with fake enthusiasm.
Bella just laughed at him. "All right! All right! I'm sorry I forgot to tell you! I've been so busy the past few weeks!"
"Ah! How painful!" Matthew clutched at his heart dramatically. "You were so busy that you couldn't even take the time to write to your best friend, and you make me learn of this life-changing event through my mother!" He shook his finger at her. "Tsk tsk! For shame!"
"You really were born for the stage do you know that!" she told him.
"You wound me madam!" he declared dramatically.
Bella just laughed at this theatrics and hugged him again. "Matthew, you have no idea how much I've missed you!"
"Well," he cleared his throat, "now that I've forgiven you for neglecting our friendship, tell me what else I've missed recently." Bella grabbed his hand and led him to the parlor, chatting all the way.
She told him all about how she had been taking care of the estate since her father had been ill, and she told him about her father's will and Braxton. He laughed when she described her conversations with him. "What was he thinking!" he laughed. "I would never have thought that he could've changed so much in such a short amount of time," he told her thoughfully.
This last comment caught Bella by surprise. "What!" she exclaimed. "You know Lord Braxton?"
"Of course I do Belle," he told her. "Don't you remember. When your father inherited the estate and you first moved here, I came to visit you, and one day, while we were riding, we met a boy about two years older than me and he agreed to play Robin Hood with us." He paused in his narrative to give her a chance to remember. "Come on Belle! How can you not remember! You beat him shamelessly and the two of you got into a fight over what girls can and cannot do!"
"Oh my goodness!" she exclaimed with a laugh. "I remember now! Amazing! I don't care what you say, I don't think he's changed a bit!" With this thought, she couldn't stop laughing as she remembered his childhood self arguing with her and then the argumetns that the two of them had had recently. When she and Matthew finally settled down, she asked him, "But that still doesn't constitute as a lasting acquaintance does it?"
"No," he told her, "but we met again when I went off to Cambridge. We actually became very good friends, and he's a good person." Bella scoffed at this remark, but Matthew just looked at her seriously. "Izzy, just give him another chance."
It was her turn to become serious. "Matt, I've given him many chances and he's always acted the same. I'm not going to continue to endure insults and disrespect from someone so wholly unconnected with me. I just hope to never encounter him again."
Matthew just sighed. "Bella, you've always been too stubborn."
She laughed. "Aww, but that's why you love me!" He joined in her laughter, and the two old friends spent the rest of the afternoon catching up. The next morning, at breakfast, Matthew brought up the subject of Braxton again.
"So, Belle, since you are abandoning me for a few hours this morning..."
"To do work!" she interrupted him.
He simply gave her a mock glare to silence her and said, "As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted, since you are abandoning me I'm going to go call on Braxton for a few hours."
"Why on Earth would you want to do that?" she asked.
Matthew gave her an admonishing look and sighed, "Belle, he's my friend as well. I understand you won't give him another chance, but that isn't going to keep me from being friends with him."
"I don't think you fully understand Matthew..."
"No Bella!" he interrupted her and held his hand up before she could say anything else. "I don't care! I'm not going to get into the middle of this!"
"Fine," she muttered with a pout, "but whatever he says I did, he's lying." The rest of breakfast was silent, with Belle truly playing the part of an immature nineteen year old young woman and pouting the whole time. She left the room as soon as she finished her meal and, without a word to Matthew, went to her study.
"It's nice to see that she's grown up," Matthew said sarcastically to Johnson as he left the room. Johnson merely stifled a chuckle and nodded. Soon after this, he was on his way to visit his old college friend, who his best friend also happened to despise. "This will be interesing," he thought to himself with a smile while he was riding.
When Matthew arrived at Lord Braxton's estate, he was shown into his friend's study. "Braxton old man!" he exclaimed. "It is good to see you!"
The other man jumped up out of his seat at the surprise of seeing Matthew and rushed over to his shake his hand. "Matthew! What are you doing here? I thought you were in France?"
"Italy, actually," he replied as he took a seat in one of the plush chairs in front of Braxton's desk, "but it's good to know that all of my friends care about me so much as to think of me," he joked.
Braxton just chuckled. "Sorry, we've been a little busy as of late." He offered Matthew a glass of brandy, gave him a silent toast, and took a sip.
"Yes," Matthew replied, ignoring the drink in his hands, "so I have heard from Bella."
At the mention of Bella's name, Braxton choked on his sip. "You've talked to Miss Timmons?" he asked him when he had regained his composure.
"Of course," Matthew told him nonchalantly, "you didn't think that you were my only friend in this world did you?"
"But...but...but..." Braxton stammered. "How do you know her?"
"Goodness!" Matthew was frustrated. "Do neither of you remember?" Braxton just looked at him expectantly. "Good Lord!" he sighed. "When Timmons first moved to Whitefally after his brother died, I visited Bella. We were playing Robin Hood and we happened to meet a young man from the neighboring estate. While playing, he and Belle had a pretty large confrontation, and I'm surprised you don't remember because that young man was you!"
"That was Miss Timmons?! She hasn't changed a bit," he muttered.
Matthew just laughed. "Yes, well, you should remember, for future reference, not to question Belle's feminist ideals."
"Yes, I'm beginning to realize that," Braxton replied with a grimace.
"Just out of curiosity, why is she so upset with you?"
"Well," Braxton started, nervous under Matthew's curious gaze, "I might have possibly given her the impression that I am supporting her borther and step-mother in their lawsuit."
"Wait!" Matthew interjected, "What lawsuit?"
"I thought you said you had talked to her?"Braxton asked, confused.
"I did, but I refused to become involved in your fight. What lawsuit?" he asked again.
"Thomas and Mrs. Timmons are arguing that Bella has no right to inherit Whitefally, and it should be given to him."
"What?!" Matthew shouted. "He has no right because he doesn't have the intelligence to manage an estate!" He paused here in his tirade to question Braxton again,"How exactly is she under the impression that you could possibly ever support Thomas in his claim?"
"Well..." he shifted awkwardly, "probably because I promised Thomas that I would help him."
"What?!" Matthew just stared at his friend in shock. "Why would you ever agree to help that imbecile?"
"It's complicated," he answered with a sigh.
"No, it's not!" Matthew exclaimed angrily. "The only considerations are who deserves to own the estate and who can manage it better, and the answer to both of those questions is Isabella, without a doubt."
"No, not necessarily!" Braxton countered. "How could a young woman, at only nineteen years old, ever be able to handle such a responsibility!"
"You cannot possibly believe that after having met Bella!" Matthew shouted back. When Braxton didn't say anything back, he just shook his head disappointedly. "I expected better from you Braxton, and I'm extremely disappointed that you could allow the ton's prejudices to cloud your own judgement." He stood up as Braxton still refused to say anything. "I'm on Bella's side in this," as he left he shot back over his shoulder, "and you would do well not to underestimate her." With this last warning, he left the room and a pensive Lord Braxton.
"Mother!" Thomas shouted as he barged into her dressing rooms without so much as a knock. "We have a major problem!"
She immediately jumped up from her seat in front of the mirror and rushed over to her son. "What has happened my love?" she asked in alarm.
"I've received a letter from Braxton. He writes that he won't be able to make it to London in time to help us fight Isabel!" he shouted.
"What?" Beatrice yelled, dropping the caring mother act. "Damn! We needed him to support our claim!"
"What are we going to do now? We need someone smart enough to fight Belle! We don't know what she's going to do! And no one will listen to us when we tell them how conniving she can be!" Thomas panicked.
Finally, Beatrice slapped him to end his ranting. "Enough!" she yelled at him. "At least act like a grown man! Once he had calmed down, she continued, "Now, there is nothing to worry about. There is no scheme that that girl could possibly invent to win! This is our time! I've been waiting for this inheritance since I married your father, and I'm not going to be cheated out of it now!"
"So what would you have me do?" he asked.
"Pay a call on that man, Fredericks. Tell him you will pay anything to have him represent us. Supposedly, he is the best of the best. Tell him everything about Isabella, and come up with a plan. We will win this," she told him determinedly.
Back at Whitefalls, it was the day that Bella was leaving for London. She and Matthew hadn't really spoken to each other since before he had gone to visit Braxton. They were both in the morning room eating breakfast, and Matthew had finally worked up the nerve to break the awkward silence between them. "So, what is your plan?"
Her head snapped up in surprise from hearing his voice. "I beg your pardon?" she asked.
He just chuckled softly. "Belle, I know you. I know that you aren't going to court without some kind of plan. So," he said, raising an inquiring eyebrow, "what is it?"
She gave him her most innocent smile. "I don't know what you are talking about."
This comment caused Matthew to burst out laughing. "Okay, okay," he said when he had calmed down, "keep your secrets. But, just tell me one thing. Is it going to be entertaining to watch?"
Almost instantly, her innocent look was replaced by a very mischievous smile and glint in her eye. "Come now, you know I'm too modest to be a good judge of that."
He barked out another delighted laugh. "Well, I guess I will just have to go with you and see it for myself now won't I?"
She looked at him in surprise. "You want to come to court with me? What about your 'I'm not going to pick sides' mantra?"
Matthew gave her an apologetic smile. "I didn't realize exactly what was going on. Why didn't you tell me?" he asked her seriously.
She sighed and looked at her plate. "I just..." she paused, trying to think of a way to put her feelings into words, "For one day I wanted to feel like nothing had changed. I wanted life to be easy like it had been before this whole mess occurred."
He reached across the table and squeezed her hand. "Belle, you're my best friend and I'm here for you, through the good times and the bad, okay?" She nodded in response to him. "So, because of that, I'm going with you to London."
"Well, then," she said with a grin, "I think you should know that it will be very entertaining." He just laughed and shook his head in mock censure.
After breakfast, they packed their things and left for London. Matthew spent the whole carriage ride making jokes and telling funny stories to keep Bella's mind off of the real reason they were going to London.
Unbeknownst to everyone, there was another person leaving for London that morning. Lord Braxton had come to the conclusion that Matthew was right; Bella deserved her inheritance. So, after his conversation with Matthew, he had written a not to Thomas, explaining that he wouldn't be able to help him. However, just because he wasn't going to help Thomas didn't meant that he wasn't going to go at all. "I'm just going because the outcome affects me and my business," he told himself. "That's all. There's nothing personal about it." But, as much as he repeated this mantra to himself, he couldn't help but wonder how Bella would react when the estate was taken away from her (he couldn't bring himself to believe that she might actually win her case).
"Oh Lord!" Matthew raised a hand to his head dramatically, "It's about time we arrived!"
Bella simply laughed at his antics. "Yes, you poor child! You had to endure a whole hour and a half in a carriage! I don't know how you managed!" As she laughed, Matthew once again reverted to his old childhood comeback and stuck his tongue out at her. This only made her laugh harder.
"Master Matthew!" came the stern voice of Bella's housekeeper and surrogate mother Mrs. Ericson. "Such deplorable manners! You certainly haven't improved since you were a child!" At this censure, Matthew looked so chagrined and disheartened that Isabella couldn't help but laugh some more.
"And as for you Miss Izzy," she turned on Isabella and it became Matthew's turn to laugh at how quickly the look on her face turned to shame as the housekeeper continued, "you should know better than to mock a grown young man! You need to act like a proper, demure young woman!" At this description, Matthew's silent laughter burst into loud guffaws and he was practically rolling on the floor. Bella smacked him on the shoulder and he lightly pushed her back; however, their playful exchange ended with a single glare from Mrs. Ericson. "Now," she said sternly, "you two go relax from your drive, and I shall send a servant to notify you when dinner is ready." Isabel and Matthew silently made their way upstairs to their rooms.
Later that day, as they were sitting down to dinner, a servant announced the entrance of Mr. Harrison. Bella invited him to join her and Matthew, and he agreed. As they all settled in to dinner, Bella asked, "So, Mr. Harrison, you must have a specific reason for calling on us so late?"
He gave her an apologetic smile, "Yes, but I can wait until after dinner to discuss it with you if you wish."
"Nonsense," she waved her hand, "we might as well get the business out of the way now so that we will be able to enjoy the rest of our evening."
"All right," he agreed, and assumed a more formal tone than previously, "our court date is next week and I wanted to make sure that everything is prepared."
"Oh! is that all?" she smiled brightly, "Don't worry! I have done everything I need to and now we also have Matthew to support us."
When she said this, Matthew eyed her warily. "What exactly am I supporting you in this time Belle?"
"Well...I want it to be a nice, entertaining surprise," she told him.
"Oh no you don't," he said with a shake of his head, "the last time that I agree to support you without knowing the particulars I found myself offering you an alibi after you put frogs in Beatrice's bed!"
"Oh please!" she exclaimed. "First of all, you know you loved that prank, and secondly, it had been your idea to begin with! You even brought me the frogs in a box!"
Mr. Harrison merely smiled as they continued to argue back and forth over who was truly at fault for that incident eight years ago. Finally, he held up his hand with a laugh and interrupted them. "Children! Mercy! I beg of you!" They had forgotten that he was bearing witness to their argument, and they immediately ended their arguing. "Do not worry young man," Mr. Harrison told Matthew, "since I approve of the plan you may be rest assured that it is perfectly acceptable and surprisingly legal."
"Well..." Matthew thought for a moment, "I suppose if Mr. Harrison approves, then I have no choice but to follow suit. But," he added with a triumphant grin, "if I'm not properly entertained by this 'surprise' then I demand that you must tell Mrs. Ericson that it was you who let the dogs run loose through the house and dirty it after she had just finished cleaning the whole thing!"
"What!" she exclaimed in protest. "That's not going to happen! Are you seriously still holding onto that grudge?"
"Do you know what my punishment was for that?" he cried out. "I had to suffer through one of her lectures everyday for a fortnight!"
"Oh you poor baby!" Bella rolled her eyes.
"And," he added forcibly, "she made me clean the whole house from top to bottom! And write in French, 'I will not disobey Mrs. Ericson' twenty-five times!"
"Okay, okay," she conceded, "maybe it was a bit harsh and maybe I shouldn't have let you take all the blame. But I have more than made up for that since then!"
"No," he shook his head, "your debt will finally be fully paid if you follow those conditions." After this came a battle of wills through a staring contest. "Do we have a deal?" he finally asked her.
She held out her hand, "I suppose so; since I know that you will not be disappointed, I have nothing to worry about."
He shook her hand and replied, "For your sake, I hope you're right because I shudder to think what kind of punishment Mrs. Ericson will come up with after you lied to her for so long."
"I didn't lie," she said indignantly, "I just never admitted that it was me and she never asked." Mr. Harrison put an end to this argument and they continued with their dinner. They then spent the rest of the evening relaxing and having many pleasant discussions (as well as childish arguments between Bella and Matthew, which Mr. Harrison ended). It was a nice evening of relaxation before the next week, which would prove to be very stressful indeed!
© 2009 Copyright held by the author.